The Uncomfortable Chair Problem

Last fall, my friend James1 and I were talking about the general state of design and why certain types of bad design exist. This blog post is born out of that conversation.

 

Good design is not an inevitable future. There is this viewpoint espoused by many designers that the world will be a much better place once companies start paying more attention to design. They often point to the growing appreciation for design in Western countries, and the value that design can bring to products, e.g. Apple. To them, increasing the role of designers in every imaginable sector is the clear next step to improve products and services we use everyday.

There’s an interview with industrial designer Karim Rashid in the documentary Objectified2 where he talks about noticing poorly designed hotel rooms, and sitting in uncomfortable chairs.

He says “there is no excuse” for uncomfortable chairs, given how many are designed year after year, and it appears that he views design as the solution to those moments of unease. While I believe an essential part of being a designer is to be an advocate for the value of design, simply having more producers of goods and services paying attention to design isn’t going to solve the problem of the world’s ever-increasing supply of uncomfortable chairs.

James and I coined the Uncomfortable Chair Problem as this:

If humanity has been making chairs for more than six thousand years, why are there still uncomfortable chairs?3

Now without getting too much into the history of chairs, they weren’t a widespread home good before the 19th century (not counting stools or certain backless asian chairs in this date). We’ve had a little under 200 years to perfect the chair, and obviously, it’s not like we haven’t hit on comfortable designs. Clearly, we know how to make comfy chairs. We know how to make them for a variety of contexts too: big home loungers, relaxing deck furniture, ergonomic office chairs that you can sit in for hours – so the issue is not an open design problem with no solutions.

There are some advocates who claim being uncomfortable can actually make us more productive. Regardless of those niche markets, we’re still looking at a vast swath of dining, outdoor, public, and home furniture where the “It’s intentional that the chair is uncomfortable” argument doesn’t fly.

A chair that is uncomfortable to sit in, in these cases, is not fulfilling one of its core functions. At a broad level, we can say that these chairs are badly designed chairs. So if many chairs are poorly designed, it stands to reason that many4 chair designers are designing poorly. And that’s where we hit the crux of the uncomfortable chair problem:

we have so many bad chairs because we have so many bad designers.

The Uncomfortable Chair Problem presents a dilemma for people who like to think that design is on the verge of ruling every product sector. The uncomfortable chairs provide a contrast to what one of my professors referred to as “The Designed Age”, in which the future is paved brightly with well-designed, functional and aesthetic goods in every home.

Playing into this is the temptation to deem good design as inevitable, as though we naturally converge from bad solutions to good ones. But good design will never be inevitable, because when we talk broadly about design and the future of design, we forget about the bad designers.5 An increased role for design as a whole means an increased role for them too.

When we do talk about broader issues in the industry of design, and the role of design in society, it’s important to look beyond cause-and-effect views, in which products “evolve” from previous states into new, better forms. Evolution branches, and some of those branches are uncomfortable chairs.

1 James is a CMU alumni and close friend who works as a mechanical engineer for stroller manufacturer 4moms

2 Which, while not particularly enlightening, is still a fantastic watch and has some great design/machine porn. Karim Rashid’s interview can be found here

3 Depictions and models of chairs have been found in Romania dating back to 4750-4600BC, other early chairs are evidenced in Egypt and China.

4 There is, of course, a large amount of wiggle room inside this statement, as James pointed out to me: bad design vs company priorities, manufacturing issues, scale of poorly made mass produced chairs, etc. I hope that the word “many” in this context is not entirely disagreeable.

5To get into a specific definition of “good” and “bad” design is not particularly worth it here, as it would likely be longer than the contents of this post

One thought on “The Uncomfortable Chair Problem

  1. Years ago, I heard on the radio, probably NPR, that our office chairs were designed in the ’30’s not by engineers, designers, or draftsmen, but by salesmen. The secretary’s chair had to be bigger than the receptionist’s chair, the boss’s chair had to be bigger than the secretary’s chair. I also notice something about a difference of culture. I am an engineer and have noticed how poorly designed chairs affect sitters. Most people feel when the chair is uncomforable, you are sitting in it wrong. Engineers feel that when the machine does not fit, you change the machine, not the person.

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